Joel Hodgson, the creator and original host of Mystery Science Theater 3000, entertained a packed house at Oak Cliff's Texas Theater Saturday night. It was a twofer, beginning with an introduction and screening of the show's classic "Pod People" episode, followed by Hodgson's new one-man showcase, "Riffing Myself."
In his introduction Hodgson explained that he wrote "Riffing Myself" this past summer, with performances starting just last Halloween. This would only be its ninth offering across the country. As for why he was screening "Pod People," out of all the MST3K episodes he starred in, he said, "I couldn't tell you why, other than that it's just so freaking weird."
And it is. It really is.
The 1983 flick, directed by Juan Piquer Simón, was conceived as a horror film but was ultimately given a more cuddly spin in the wake of Steven Spielberg's successful E.T. The end result is a movie with so many odds and ends and moving parts that, for most of the time, you don't really know what you're watching.
"We're just as confused as you are, folks," says Crow, the golden-beaked robot, as the silhouetted trio riffs on the unfolding film. The movie sets up three different groups of characters: a pair of hunters lost in the woods, a young boy who likes to collect animals (or "specimens," in his words), and a group of singers on a camping trip. Two aardvarkian aliens occupy the center, with one of them, the momma, looking for her lost baby. As per the movie's horror elements, most everyone who tangles with the momma alien ends up dead.
The idea of a movie theater screening a television show isn't that novel anymore, with the local Angelika Film Centers commonly showing popular programs free of charge. But for fans of MST3K, which ended its run in 1999, the experience was unique. You might even say that, with movie audiences not what they used to be, the night was a perfect argument for why we still need theaters, the Texas Theatre in particular. As the audience sang along with the show's poppy theme song, the collective passion and anticipation was almost palpable.
Hodgson's one-man show followed the screening and included at least 350 personal photographs. During this segment, he explained the show's beginnings and screened early promotional material. But he spent most of the time detailing his childhood love of television, magic and ventriloquism. Some of the evening's biggest laughs came when Hodgson cycled through photos of his old Maher ventriloquist catalog, riffing on the bizarre and disturbing faces of the dummies posed for pictures.
"Because this one could only be more scary if you put pants on it," he said of one dummy, whose white padded legs began at the middle of its stomach.
Hodgson also described the impact that artist Roger Dean had on him. Besides drawing fantasy art and designing the logo for the 1960s band Yes, Dean also helped to pioneer kitbashing, a form of model-making that combines pieces from completely different sets to make something new.
"Dean helped me to see that anything can be reimagined," Hodgson said. The robot stars of MST3K, named Crow, Servo, and Gypsy, were all the result of taking thrift store finds and repurposing them.
One of those robots-the red, rotund Servo-was even in attendance at the event. He came with El Centro student Forrest Massey. Both drew nearly as much attention as Hodgson.
"I vaguely remember watching the show when I was young," Massey said, "but it was my ex-girlfriend who reintroduced me to it."
He had wanted to build his own version of Servo, but the parts were too hard to find. Then, in proof that you really can find just about anything on the Internet, he discovered a man who could make one for him from molds of the original parts. When Massey, who was the last person in the VIP line, finally met Hodgson, a smattering of applause and cheers went up as Hodgson looked nostalgically at the robot, signed it and took a picture with it and Massey.
Hodgson was affable and more than willing to respond to his fans all throughout the evening's four-hour plus run time, which ended with a question and answer period.
"How did you pick these movies?" is one question Hodgson gets a lot. But it wasn't really a matter of picking anything, he explained. KMTA, the small Minneapolis station on which MST3K first premiered, would buy a bundle of movies, and some would be great while the rest would be awful. "We would ask for the crappy ones," Hodgson said.
"Do you ever catch yourself riffing at home while you're watching a movie with your wife?" someone else asked as the last question of the night.
"No, I don't," Hodgson said, scoring one last laugh as he added, "because that's my job."